The populist perils of illiberal paeans


Modern democracies operate within a framework of rationalism. Dismantle it and the space is filled by prejudice. Fear counts above reason; anger above evidence. Lies claim equal status with facts, FT analyst Philip Stephens writes:

Referendums amplify the danger. Margaret Thatcher called them the favoured device of demagogues and dictators. Liberal democracy depends on mutual respect, trust in national institutions, guarantees for minorities, and the checks and balances that underpin the rule of law. Strip them away and you are left with brute majoritarianism. 

Post-imperial Britain has been a staunch proponent of liberal democratic values in the world, says Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute and a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

“Amid rising xenophobia and Euroskepticism in other countries, Brexit could pull the thread that unravels the whole European fabric. No doubt Russian President Vladimir Putin would welcome the disintegration of Europe, but it would be an economic and political catastrophe for the United States,” he writes for The Hill:

Even if that doesn’t happen, a victory for Brexit would be a setback for liberal and progressive values now under attack across Europe and the United States. We would see an intensification of an ugly and retrograde politics that seeks to build walls to keep out people “not like us”; replace liberal concepts of individual rights and dignity with ethnic and religious identity politics; roll back globalization and freeze technological change, protecting existing jobs at the expense of new ones; and turn our backs on terror and oppression abroad.

Today’s illiberal populists are less likely to be organized around systematic philosophies like Fascism and Communism than was the case in the years between the two world wars—the last time liberalism appeared this vulnerable, the Wall Street Journal’s Sohrab Ahmari contends. In our time, illiberal forces are disparate, instinctual, inchoate, more likely to be local in focus, and internally divided. Often various illiberalisms are locked in combat against one another, he writes for Commentary. 

Moreover, far from defending the traditional values of democracies—freedom of speech, the rule of law, checks on government power—illiberal leaders tend to destroy them once in office, as in Hungary and Poland, arguing that things like independent courts and critical media are obstacles to national rejuvenation, writes Adrian Shahbaz, a Research Manager for Freedom House:

Over time, such rulers have proven that their promises of law and order are a screen for the accumulation of illicit wealth and arbitrary power. And once entrenched, illiberal elected leaders like Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan [above] have developed a singular focus on clinging to that wealth and power, even if it means dragging the entire country into conflict, isolation, and poverty…..

On both sides of the Atlantic, opportunistic demagogues fail to appreciate the possible consequences of their inflammatory rhetoric and reckless policies. Following the worst examples around the world, they are exploiting the democratic process, seeking political gain by sowing ethnic and religious hatred and undermining civil liberties. This will not save our countries, it will seriously damage them. To stay strong, the United States and its European allies must stay true to their democratic principles. RTWT 

Turkey’s burgeoning alliance with Putin’s Russia was an unrecognised problem for Europe because it meant the rise of a consciously illiberal axis that positioned itself as an alternative to the European model, notes analyst Asli Aydintasbas. However, Turkey’s falling out with Russia has not resulted in Ankara’s immediate return to European values, she writes for the European Council on Foreign Relations:

Europe should take this chance to push Turkey in the right direction – back towards democracy and European values, and away from Russian-style nationalism and crony capitalism. The paper argues that Europe should work to draw Turkey back into its sphere, building on the refugee deal and visa liberalisation, and encourage Ankara to diversify its energy supplies away from Russia.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email